Washington should have been more ready for the unprecedented “heat dome” that blasted the region with temperatures well above 100 degrees. The warning has been sitting on the governor’s shelf for years. In fact, he wrote it himself. Yet the hot surge caught many places under the governor’s leadership woefully unprepared for the record-breaking, but predicted, roasting.
Specifically, Washington’s climate-focused governor dropped the ball on preparing state prisons to handle the surging heat. In Snohomish County, the 2,000 people confined at Monroe Correctional Complex on June 28 sweltered through 107-degree heat, unable to open windows or seek ice bags from local stores.
Last year, the prison’s slapdash pandemic response provoked unrest inside Monroe. But even before that, astoundingly neglectful medical care and a string of inmate deaths revealed the state had repeatedly failed at that facility.
The June heat wave revealed further lapses, as detailed in an Office of Corrections Ombuds report. An uncovered prison skylight in full sunlight registered 128 degrees. Air vents pushed 95 degree air, drawn from the prison’s roof, into one unit of cells. Inmates believed they were risking punishment by covering up the vents, but did so anyway. The prison never sent word the practice was being temporarily forgiven.
The OCO report recommended more shade, ice and fans for inmates, and the department has agreed to look into improvements.
State officials must do better to prepare, and Inslee must show he can turn his climate prophecy into effective strategy. His 2007 book, “Apollo’s Fire,” sounded the gong that extreme weather was becoming more commonplace, and asserted that a pivot to clean energy and other shifts of society and industry were direly needed. Yet cities across Puget Sound, including Seattle, lacked coherent strategies for protecting the most vulnerable, most of whom lack air conditioning.
Life in state confinement is not easy, but it must remain humane. That’s government’s responsibility, starting with the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. As of May, state Department of Corrections facilities held 13,604 people. During confinement, the state must provide these people with basic needs, including tolerable shelter along with food and medical services.
Inslee and newly appointed Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange must enact a better strategy for handling extreme weather. Sound advice on this front comes from Inslee and co-author Bracken Hendricks’ book:
“We must do better, and we must do so urgently. It is literally a matter of survival,” they wrote in “Apollo’s Fire.”
Those words must become policy guidance, not just prediction, to build climate resiliency for people who lack freedom to escape to tolerable conditions.